While Toronto's cultural infrastructure projects anxiously await news of their requested $50-million from forthcoming Ontario and federal budgets, private donors have been signalling their determination to see the projects through.
The latest is vegetarian-foods entrepreneur Shreyas Ajmera, president of Seenergy Foods, who, the Royal Ontario Museum announced yesterday, will be donating $5-million to the museum's expansion.
Reached yesterday at his Woodbridge, Ont.-based company headquarters, the 55-year-old, Indian-born Mr. Ajmera said, "I'm a big believer in conditioning -- the colour of skin depends on where you live. The body's cells have their own programming; they know to adapt automatically. But our intellects are different. As an immigrant, I had to adapt by understanding more of the culture and behaviour here. For that understanding, you come to the museum."
The gift catapults Mr. Ajmera into the ROM donor elite, the "New Century Founders Group" of people who have given the ROM more than $5-million. This group includes old money (Hilary and Galen Weston, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum) and newer names (James and Louise Temerty). The gift also puts Mr. Ajmera among those donors who have given additional funds to Toronto's other projects in hopes of triggering yet more financial support (the Charles and Marilyn Baillie gift of $5-million to the Art Gallery of Ontario and Hal Jackman's latest donation of $5-million to the Canadian Opera Company).
The Ajmera gift means the ROM has raised almost $190-million from the private sector. But it still needs to find $50-million to complete its total construction costs of $240-million -- and even if Ontario kicks in a requested $12-million in its forthcoming budget and Ottawa does likewise, more than half of that $50-million will have to come from the private sector.
"Being an immigrant to Canada, it's a pleasure to participate," said Mr. Ajmera yesterday. "But we need more donors."
And from new sources. The Royal Conservatory has found first-time donors such as broadcaster Shan Chandresekar and investment-fund manager Ian Ihnatowycz and his wife, optometrist Marta Witer. Indian-born microbiologist-turned-investor Kanur Srinivasan and American-born investor Gerry Conway are among the new donors to the Art Gallery of Ontario -- "because we wanted to get into the community," explained Mr. Srinivasan. "New immigrants can capitalize on these institutions and feel they are part of this city. We want to see more newcomers take part in the city's growth."
The institutions, of course, are only too happy to oblige: "As I said to Shreyas, his gift is like Michael Lee-Chin's donation, because it demonstrates how the country has changed," ROM CEO William Thorsell said yesterday. "These cultural institutions really do belong to everybody."
Born in Mumbai in 1950 to a family of observant Jains, Mr. Ajmera and his brother moved to the United States in 1972 to complete their business degrees at the University of Detroit. On sightseeing trips to Niagara Falls, the brothers saw business opportunities, and an appealing and an oddly familiar British-inflected culture, on the Canadian side of the border.
They set up a frozen-dough bakery business in Concord, Ont., in 1973, which became Dough Delight Ltd., one of the largest frozen baked-food suppliers in North America.
As Jains and practising vegetarians, they could see an underserved market in vegetarian foods (which also crosses over into the kosher market). Seenergy Foods, the company they launched in 1994, ships quick-frozen beans and other vegetarian ingredients across North America and to emerging markets in Holland.
When their sons Ativ (now 23) and Sam (now 21) were children, Mr. Ajmera and his wife, Mina, took them to the ROM. While Ativ gravitated to old objects d'art, Sam sought out ancient history -- "and they were both impressed with the gem galleries," said Mr. Ajmera.
But he had not considered becoming involved with the institution until 2½ years ago, when a neighbour in Toronto's expensive Bridle Path community asked him to join the ROM Board of Governors. Approached by Jim Temerty, said Mr. Ajmera, "I couldn't escape!"
Lately, he has turned a similar strategy on other neighbours, holding gatherings to seduce more donors.
"We had [ROM architect]Daniel Libeskind and William Thorsell come out to our house and made speeches," he said. "We think that's making a big difference."